January-February 2007

Magic From New Mexico

By Michael Macheret

Columbus has been so maligned that Columbus Day has become the most embarrassing holiday on our calendar. Yes, he was wrong about many things, like in what land he had docked his ships and about who those people were that greeted him. But he knew a good meal when he tasted it and what he tasted was the magic of chile. He brought the chile back to Spain and from there the chile conquered the world: from Europe to Africa, and on to India, Southeast Asia, China and Korea. Maybe if we celebrated Columbus bringing chile to the rest of the world, we’d have more agreement about his holiday?

You could fill many volumes with a description of the varieties of chile. Lots of chile lovers have their favorites. Those who go for the heat may have a fondness for the tiny, fiery Habanero or its cousin the Scotch Bonnet. The Tabasco chile, only slightly milder than the Habanero, is the key ingredient in Louisiana’s famous hot sauce. The Jalapeno, a moderately piquant chile, is perhaps the most popular or at least the most commonly found in the US. And the smoked, dried Jalapeno known as Chipotle has been gaining in popularity. The Bell Pepper, a chile with no bite at all, is ubiquitous in supermarket produce aisles.

I have no problem playing favorites on this issue. The New Mexico chile, both green and red (red, of course, when it is fully ripe), is a chile with a unique character, taste and – yes – real class. If you have never seen the New Mexico chile (and if you haven’t been to New Mexico you probably haven’t), it’s almost indistinguishable in appearance from the very mild Anaheim chile. But as similar as they appear, they are not interchangeable. The New Mexico chile has a healthy kick to it and so it needs to be treated with due respect.

Capsaicin, the heat source in the chile, is not the whole story. There are, of course, those who love chile only for the heat. There are also those who drink wine only for the alcohol. (Hey, enjoy!) Like wine, chile can have subtleties of depth and flavor. With the right chile and the right handling there are adventures to be had, and the bite is like a gateway to the adventure.

More on this later, but let’s talk about the particular magic of New Mexico chile. Take a trip to Sante Fe or Taos and you will find the red chili and green chili at restaurants everywhere (the convention I am adhering to is “chile


All Columns by Michael Macheret